Playing Favorites

Playing Favorites

Since the debate about taste that got sparked here last week raged for days, it might seems like overkill to add a couple more coals to the fire with a further provocation, but here it goes anyway.

I’d venture a guess that most people, if asked who their favorite author is, would probably name a living author, if they have a favorite. Same goes for favorite baseball player, favorite singer, favorite movie star, etc. Yet ask someone to name their favorite composer and I’d also guess that those who don’t give you that baffled “what’s-a-composer” look will more often than not mention someone both long-dead and from another country.

Over the years, I’ve heard many new music folks come up with the same names as the standard rep classical folks do when pressed to name names. Why is that? Are we so eager to show the world that our new music is in fact part of some sacred tradition that spawns from the same DNA as the music that those once-upon-a-time gods on earth had written? Or could there possibly be a fear that naming someone who is alive and well and possibly living around the corner might give that person too swelled a head? Perhaps we’re afraid of offending other living composers who think that their names should have been placed there instead.

Might it be that Beethoven, W.A. Mozart, or J.S. Bach really are better than any composer who is alive today? And if someone were to objectively explain indeed why they are, could it ever be possible for there to be a better composer than them at some point in the foreseeable future? And, would it ever be possible for such a composer to come from the U.S.A.?

Admittedly I’ve heard folks namedrop more recent composers with added qualifiers, e.g. favorite contemporary composer, favorite American composer. Yet so often death anoints here, as well. While all extremely deserving while they were alive, death did wonders for the reputations of György Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Messiaen, and Xenakis, as well as Morton Feldman and John Cage.

I honestly don’t have a favorite composer. When asked, I’ll usually retort, “Myself, since I’d like to be someone’s favorite composer.” Trust me, it’s a bit tongue-in-cheek and not some form of megalomania. But ultimately it’s only half a joke, since in the final analysis the only work that can be calibrated to precisely match one’s personal taste is one’s own.

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19 thoughts on “Playing Favorites

  1. Trevor

    My favorite actor, director, singer, and composer are all dead and foreign-born. My favorite composer, when I feel the need to give such a designation, is Mahler, but I refuse to write for orchestra, and keep my own compositions under 15 minutes. It might well be that what interests you in terms of craft and what is emotionally resonant are two completely different things, and I find nothing wrong or startling about that.

  2. rtanaka

    After I started doing improvised performances on a regular basis attitudes I had about musical “favorites” loosened up considerably. Performances would change all the time, maybe some of the things we did would be inspired by composers or other known styles, but the music itself was very much of our own creation as it was also someone else’s idea. In the context of this, it becomes more and more silly to put any particular musician or composer on a pedestal. It’s not to say that good written music is not worthy of being praised, but composers are human too, and they all have their respective strengths and weaknesses and their relevance largely depends on context.

    Before Beethoven the word “genius” (inspired by Kant and German Idealism) didn’t really exist — it had no meaning, because that was never really the point of doing music to begin with. The very idea of idolization is very much an offshoot of romanticism, which has been perpetuated both by classical and popular institutions in western society. These things can lead to some serious low-self esteem issues, which I suspect why so many people don’t find playing classical music all that enjoyable. (It didn’t for me, anyway, until after I got out of school, which was kind of ironic.) Luckily in today’s postmodern world things seem to be loosening up a bit.

    I’m really glad that Frank is willing to say that he’s his own favorite, because in a lot of ways classical music is designed to make you feel bad about yourself in some manner (e.g. transcendental idealism) so it really takes a lot to step out of that mindset and just be yourself. I don’t think it’s arrogant to say that you’re the producer of your favorite works because all it just means that you’ve established such a personal connection to it that you can’t see yourself identifying with anything else so strongly. In fact, it’s probably more problematic if that weren’t the case, because it means that you’re probably not putting enough yourself into the kinds of musics you’re doing.

  3. JohnClare

    I have favorites, in music and with books, movies, food…but it changes. My favorite color hasn’t changed in years (green) and I usually say I love Andrzej Panufnik’s music most – but I love to hear new sounds, so maybe my favorite composer is still yet to be discovered.

    Just because sushi is your favorite food doesn’t mean you’ll only eat sushi…

  4. Colin Holter

    To be fair, “who’s your favorite composer?” is a pretty daunting question. There are a whole bunch of composers whose music means a lot to me, but it would be very difficult for me to boil that shortlist down to a single name. And if I did, I’d worry that I was revealing a distorted image of my own aesthetic disposition: Imagine meeting a composer whose favorites are Claudio Monteverdi, Stephen Foster, and Pauline Oliveros – how can he or she possibly give you one answer that won’t be misrepresentative?

  5. philmusic

    “death did wonders for the reputations of György Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Messiaen, and Xenakis, as well as Morton Feldman and John Cage.”

    Since Varese said –“the modern day composer refuses to die”

    What are we supposed to do now????????

    (please forgive if the quote is not exact)

    Phil Fried
    Phil’s page

  6. Trevor

    “Imagine meeting a composer whose favorites are Claudio Monteverdi, Stephen Foster, and Pauline Oliveros – how can he or she possibly give you one answer that won’t be misrepresentative?”

    Perhaps being a “favorite” shouldn’t be representative of anything. As I said, my favorite composer is Mahler. I’m also a microtonal freak who thinks the orchestra is artistically dead, and doesn’t really care for the composers most often compared to Mahler (Wagner, Bruckner, etc.).

    If someone is decently open-minded in terms of compositional style, then I think the concept of “favorites” can merely speak to an emotional context rather than any ideological one. I don’t see any reason to worry about self-representations in declaring a certain affinity for any one composer’s work.

  7. jbunch

    I’ve noticed that I go in cycles. When I hear a composer for the first time – of make a connection with an old composer that was never there before – it tends to sound like they are my favorite. I think it’s just the excitement of making intimate little discoveries. This happened recently for me with Feldman – who I never could “get” for a long time, then one day, I sat down with a copy of the score for Palais de Mari and noticed to my great surprise and pleasure that there were some affinities to Feldmanian (errrg) re-contextualization happening in my stuff right now. It makes more sense to me now – and this is a time when I am eager to discover some American composers that really speak to me.

    I probably don’t need to mention the yawning aesthetic divide that exists between America and Europe right now. And I’ll be vulnerable enough to admit that I feel a sense of guilt in some ways because my aesthetic tastes seem to meander across the pond more than with American composers right now. Is there an unspoken duty to “buy American” in terms of aesthetic tastes? I want to – and believe me I’m on the hunt for something that strikes a chord with me (and I’ll take it where I can get it). Oddly enough, my taste in popular music is pretty British (except for my tastes in electronica/house/Hip-hop which are almost entirely American). The whole American musical experience to me (in terms of new classical music) is awash in pragmatism and has lost its teeth for me in a mad rush to become presentable again. From the Godawful orchestral situation that Trevor mentioned, to the fact that there IS an aesthetic barrier keeping European and American thinking safely in their own arenas. I didn’t sign up for that! I’m not looking for any “historical ratification,” nor am I looking for a new hero myth to participate in. I have the same fear of the forces active in so much modern music in this country that Simone Weill had for the Catholic Church during WWII. It’s a big powerful body that operates for the most part on methods of persuasion and normalization that have nothing to do with the questions it intends to answer – and in many ways Es muß Zein . It’s because it seems that the choice is between writing trip-h’operas and rewriting Ned Rorem’s entire catalogue (which was good enough the first time), I know I just need to do more listening (and more adventurous listening). But I also know what is important to me (and to reference Frank’s last topic – it isn’t always what is extrinsically appealing).


  8. coreydargel

    On one of his PBS shows recently, the magnificent Bill Moyers spoke of the spiritual effect of a symphonic work honoring the victims of 9/11 “by the composer, John Cage.” His guest agreed that music can be a wonderful spiritual experience, adding, “I’m a fan of John Cage, and John Cage is right!” Apparently no one at PBS caught the error.

  9. lawrence

    american composers
    Actually, Frank, I think more Americans (nonmusicians that is) would name living American composers than dead Europeans as their favorites, simply because so many would immediately think of John Williams, Danny Elfman, James Horner or Howard Shore.

  10. cbustard

    “My favorite composer” is almost certainly one I’ve lived with and heard alongside others for some time. Advantage: dead guys.

    “My new favorite composer” or “my favorite composer this week” relates to me in a very different way, like a newly encountered and suddenly craved food. Advantage: none, really. The composer could be dead or alive, foreign or domestic, just new to me.

  11. jbunch

    I guess people name composers rather than pieces in this type of conv. because we’re really talking about aesthetic ideologies (hence ideologues). Maybe I’m the only one that understood Frank’s topic that way though?

  12. Frank J. Oteri

    muzition33 claims that Howard Shore is not American, but I beg to disagree.

    Howard Shore was born in Canada, which indeed is not in this country. And I accept the common usage of American to be a simplification of the overly long and never used “United States of American” or the awkward and never used “United Statesian.” But he was trained at the Berkee School of Music in Boston, and—according to a reliable source—currently lives in New York state, which when last I checked is still part of the U.S.A.

  13. Randy Kinkel

    I go through phases where I listen to a lot of one or two composers all the time. current faves include Rodney Rogers from ASU and Eric Satie.

  14. pgblu

    I’m always a little suspicious when a composer can name a favorite composer (unless they have several). But I do say “suspicious” and not “judgmental” — I just find it hard to imagine taking on the unenviable profession of composer and already knowing works of the past that REALLY float your boat to the point where you’d identify the composer of that boat-floater as your “favorite”.

    P.S. I don’t know Howard Shore. I do hope the Rev. Spooner will steer clear of his acquaintance.


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